Jonte Smith double delight as Ballymena defeat Crusaders in extra-time
Jonte Smith headed home a late, late winner to send Ballymena United fans into raptures at Seaview.
The big Bermudian striker’s extra-time winner booked David Jeffrey’s team a place in the next round of the BetMcLean League Cup following 120 minutes of non-stop action.
It was Smith who began the scoring in the 3-2 win, heading the Sky Blues into an early lead only for Ben Kennedy to level things up before the break.
United substitute Daniel Bramall then hit a ‘Goal of the Season’ contender deep into extra-time before Jordan Owens’ header appeared to send the game into a penalty shoot-out.
But, in the closing seconds, it was Smith who had the last laugh with a bullet header which sparked scenes of jubilation among the away spectators.
United got off to a dream start with that early Smith opener. Jude Winchester was hauled down by a clumsy challenge from Lewis Patterson and, when Ross Redman floated in the most delightful of free-kicks, the big Bermuda international glanced his header beyond the out-stretched glove of Jonny Tuffey.
The former Cheltenham Town man almost did it again on 18 minutes when Andy McGrory’s long, searching pass picked out Smith and after holding off a challenge from Aidan Wilson, his scuffed shot could only roll into the hands of Tuffey.
Stephen Baxter’s team had to wait until 27 minutes for their first sniff at goal, but Owens could only head Kennedy’s free-kick straight at a relieved Jordan Williamson.
And the big shot-stopper was called into action again in the home team’s next attack.
Jordan Forsythe fed a clever pass to Owens, whose low effort was clutched at the base of the post.
The Crues were certainly growing into the game, with Brandon Doyle trying his luck from 25 yards before Kennedy levelled things up five minutes before the break.
It was Owens’ pass that sent the midfielder into the box and his left-footed shot appeared to take a deflection off the boot of defender Conor Keeley before looping over Williamson.
But it was United who almost went in at half-time with the lead - only for Caolan Loughran to see his back-post header crash off the top of the crossbar, following McGrory’s corner-kick.
The Crues roared from the traps after the restart with Doyle blazing just over the top before Williamson saved from Kennedy.
Williamson was forced to go full-stretch, low to his left, on 52 minutes to keep out a stinging effort from Clarke.
Having weathered the storm, United broke with a vengeance on 68 minutes - Redman’s flick sending Winchester into the box, only to see his piledriver beaten away by Tuffey.
Owens felt he had given his team the lead with 17 minutes remaining when he headed home a Kennedy cross - but referee Lee Tavinder ruled out the effort for an offside infringement.
In extra-time, it was United who asked all the questions, with McGrory firing wide of a gaping goal, Smith heading just past the post and Leroy Millar bringing a brilliant save from Tuffey with a thundering shot.
But Bramall brought the away fans to life with his wonder strike just on the stroke of half-time.
He cut in from the left to send in a wicked drive from fully 35 yards that fizzed into the top corner, well out of the reach of Tuffey.
Back came the battling Crues.
Substitute Billy Joe Burns got to the by-line before sending in a trademark delivery and Owens did the rest with the flick of his head.
With the clock ticking down and extra-time almost up, Bramall crossed to Smith and his piercing header ballooned the net.
CRUSADERS: Tuffey, Hegarty, Wilson (Robinson, 91), Weir (Caddell, 46), Kennedy, Doyle (Frazer, 70), Forsythe, O’Rourke, L.Patterson (BJ Burns, 117), Owens, Clarke (Heatley, 70).
Subs (not used): Kerr, J.Patterson.
BALLYMENA UNITED: Williamson, Redman, McKeown (Chapman, 80), Winchester (Beattie, 113), McElroy (Bramall, 80), Henderson, McGrory, Loughran, Keeley, Millar, Smith.
Subs (not used): Johnston, Kane, Barr, Farquhar.
REFEREE: Lee Tavinder.
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